3M Company will pay $9.1 million to resolve claims it knowingly supplied defective earplugs to the U.S. military, according to a news release from the Department of Justice published last week.
The settlement comes two years after a whistleblower, a California-based manufacturer of safety products called Moldex, sued 3M for violating the False Claims Act, alleging the company– and its predecessor Aearo Technologies — knew its dual-ended Combat Arms Earplugs became imperceptibly loose in the ear canal as early as 2000. The undisclosed defect remained a secret for years, according to court documents, as thousands of soldiers — reportedly more than half — sustained “significant hearing loss and tinnitus” while deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan between 2003 and 2015.
Meanwhile, 3M profited more than $9 million off its exclusive government contract, court records show.
“In addition to funding the military’s repeated purchases of the defective earplugs from 3M for more than a decade, taxpayers must also shoulder the massive expense of treating veterans with hearing damage and impairment, which represents the largest ongoing medical cost to the military,” attorneys for Moldex said in a 25-page complaint filed in South Carolina federal court.
3M discontinued the earplugs in 2015, but never issued a recall. The Department of Veterans Affairs spends more than $1 billion annually treating hearing loss for over 800,000 veterans, according to most recent estimates cited in court documents.
“The Department of Justice is committed to protecting the men and women serving in the United States military from defective products and fraudulent conduct,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General Chad A. Readler of the Department’s Civil Division. “Government contractors who seek to profit at the expense of our military will face appropriate consequences.”
“Today’s settlement will ensure that those who do business with the government know that their actions will not go unnoticed,” said Frank Robey, director of the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command’s Major Procurement Fraud Unit. “Properly made safety equipment, for use by our Soldiers, is vital to our military’s readiness. Our agents will respond robustly to protect the safety of our military.”
Moldex will receive a $1.9 million payout for filing the claims, according to the DOJ.
“Through rigorous enforcement of the False Claims Act, we protect taxpayer dollars from waste, fraud, and abuse,” said U. S. Attorney Sherri Lydon for the District of South Carolina. “And in this case in particular, we are proud to defend the integrity of our military programs and ensure that our men and women in uniform are adequately protected as they serve our country.”